The fog in Oslo was so thick that the fans at Holmenkollen could barely see any of the women’s 15 k pursuit.
The video board across from the stands was completely obscured, and even when athletes skied through the stadium, the only forms that could be made out were outlines—the spindly one of Justyna Kowalczyk (POL), say, or the stocky one of Finland’s Aino-Kaisa Saarinen.
But with the homestretch lying directly alongside the bleachers, the best view that the spectators got on Saturday was the one that mattered most: Norwegian Marit Bjoergen all by herself, arms raised in celebration, skiing to her second straight gold medal at the 2011 World Championships.
She had left behind her teammate Therese Johaug and chief rival, Justyna Kowalczyk, on the course’s last major descent, thanks to a strong push over the top and a great pair of skis.
“The guys in the cabin have done a very good job today,” she said.
Kowalczyk was second and Johaug third, but neither were close to Bjoergen in her 10th straight distance win—a streak dating back to last season. It’s a run unrivaled since Bente Skari’s reign in the early 2000’s, and the way Bjoergen is going right now, there are no indications it will come to an end any time soon.
The Norwegian was the overwhelming favorite coming into the day, given her record earlier this year, and her win in Thursday’s sprint. But as she put it in the press conference, “it’s not ever easy.”
Like in the sprint, she had the advantage of a fervent home crowd pegged by organizers at 26,000, but with one big difference: nobody could see her.
While Holmenkollen can be picturesque, with bright sun, blue skies, and great views, it is also known for its damp, foggy weather. Sure enough, a dense mist has hung in the air since Friday, blotting out the video board and limiting visibility to 75 meters, frustrating fans who had paid up to $140 U.S. for tickets. For most of the race, the only source of information for the crowd was Kjell-Erik Kristiansen, the stadium announcer.
“I didn’t see anything,” said Lars-Erik Oberg, a fan who said he wouldn’t have made the trip to Holmenkollen had he known the visibility would be so poor. “It’s a bit [of a] pity, because a lot of money has been paid for this. But of course, you can’t do anything about this.”
In North America, the moisture combined with temperatures in the high 20’s would have made for tricky waxing. But Holmenkollen’s conditions are unique, and many athletes were still on hard wax at the start, thanks to a healthy dose of powder still mixed in with the icy snow.
None of the top athletes appeared to struggle with kick. Instead, they struggled with the fierce pace set by Bjoergen, Kowalczyk, and Johaug in the classic leg—one that had already started to shatter the pack by the two-kilometer mark.
Bjoergen said that she was trying to avoid doing much work, but Johaug, especially, had an interest in stringing things out. A stronger classic skier, Johaug said wanted to shake Charlotte Kalla (SWE), and some of the other women in the field who are stronger skaters.
The efforts paid off: by the time the women got to the exchange, the lead group was down to the trio of Johaug, Bjoergen, and Kowalczyk. Kalla and Saarinen were the only ones within striking distance, but even for those two, the gap was already insurmountable, at close to 30 seconds.
For the first third of the skating leg, it was Bjoergen doing the work. But around the 11-kilometer mark, she pulled up to let one of the other women take over.
Afterwards, Bjoergen said she was hoping Kowalczyk would take a pull, but instead, Johaug stepped in.
“I actually wanted Kowalczyk in front, but Kowalczyk wanted Therese in front,” Bjoergen said.
Facing two women who had cracked the sprint finals, Johaug knew she would have her hands full if she left the race until the home stretch. So for a couple of kilometers, she hammered, doing her best to break the two others.
“That was my chance,” she said.
Johaug looked sharp and smooth, and the tough course suited her tiny frame. But against the two fittest women in the
world, her efforts weren’t enough. Still, she said she didn’t regret the move—it was her best shot at beating the other two—and she was “only really happy” with bronze.
Bjoergen, meanwhile, had been planning an attack on the Gratishaugen—the last stout climb on the distance course that was also the same spot she’d used to get her race-winning advantage in the sprint.
But earlier in the skate leg, Bjoergen said that she had noticed her skis were running well—much better than Kowalczyk’s. (They were running so well, in fact, that she called up the Norwegian national team director immediately after the race to tell him that they were the best skis of her life.)
Confident in her advantage, Bjoergen decided to go earlier, at the top of the last descent before the Gratishaugen.
“We had Therese in front,” she said. “I tried to work hard in the top of the downhill, and then I got a good gap.”
The advantage to Johaug and Kowalczyk widened on the descent, thanks to Bjoergen’s skis and her strong push. Up the climb and into the stadium, the advantage held, and Bjoergen was able to pull up and celebrate on the homestretch, the roar from the crowd demonstrating that the mist hadn’t dampened its spirits.
Afterwards, Kowalczyk said she had tried to follow Bjoergen, but was stymied by Johaug, who moved to block her on the descent “not one, not two, but three or four times.”
“I was trying to ski after Marit, but Johaug [stopped] me,” Kowalczyk said.
Replays did show Johaug in front of Kowalczyk on the twisty downhill, and perhaps making a couple of subtle moves to hold her position. But it didn’t appear that Johaug ever took any line other than the best one—and she firmly denied making any attempts at obstruction.
“No, no, no, no, no—that was not the meaning,” Johaug said. “Of course not.”
For her part, Kowalczyk said she had no quibble with the move—had she been in Johaug’s shoes, she said, she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“If this situation was someone from Poland, [it would have been] the same tactic,” Kowalczyk said. “This is normal. It’s cross-country skiing.”
Inge Scheve and Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.